Master and Victim

Master and Victim

Other countries have Man Booker Prize winners.

Other countries have Man Booker Prize winners.

Other countries have Man Booker Prize winners. We Indians have a superman who’s won the Booker,the Booker of Bookers and all things imaginably Booker,all for one book: Midnight’s Children (1981). But looking back,the closing sentence of Salman Rushdie’s first success was prescient: “…it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times,to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes,and to be unable to live or die in peace.”

Joseph Anton is out,an account of the fatwa years written in the third person after the manner of Julius Caesar’s war diary,De Bello Gallico. Its unusual subject and format guarantee it a place in the history of the memoir. The people closest to Rushdie,some of whom have been treated a bit shabbily here,have not spoken yet. But to the average person browsing the shelves,it reads like a devastatingly upfront memoir. Now,perhaps,Rushdie will be able to die in peace. But can he live in peace? Has he ever wanted to live in peace? He insists that he always did. But his detractors,some of whom he once counted as friends or natural allies,like John le Carre,insist that he deliberately lit the fuse with The Satanic Verses (1988).

A memoir is a turning point in the life of a public intellectual,a coign of vantage from which he or she looks back on a life presumably well spent. In sympathy,the readership suspends judgement,forgives much,forgets some more and commits the intellectual to the uncritical embrace of hagiography. But instead,let’s look back on Rushdie’s life dispassionately,not through an examination of the personality but of his art.


Salman Rushdie was proof of concept. Midnight’s Children demonstrated that the sun had set on the Queen’s English. The impure was no longer unclean and the stage was set for the multicultural age we live in. A postcolonial tale told in chutney-speak could win the highest literary award in the Queen’s realm. Rushdie was living the change even earlier,while he wrote the book in his spare time over six years. After an unremarkable foray into theatre,he worked as a copywriter with leading advertising agencies in London,including Ogilvy & Mather. A “Paki” was writing slogans for chocolates and cream cakes which appeared on billboards across the UK. In the somewhat racist Eighties,this was a big deal.

In a speech delivered in Chicago,Rushdie recalled that copywriters with literary ambitions had to lock their drawers when they left for home because David Ogilvy snooped around the office in search of contraband — film treatments,drama scripts,novels in progress. One of those manuscripts would grow into Midnight’s Children,the book which permanently altered the cultural power equation between the Anglo-Saxon world and the former colonies. It was so successful that even Indian presses which pirated it began to send Rushdie greeting cards for Eid,utterly infuriating him. The Booker win encouraged other new voices like Vikram Seth to speak out. And gleeful Indian headlines sang out: The Empire Writes Back.

But the eagerness to celebrate the event erased all memory of the process preceding it. Midnight’s Children was a blip in a curve of literary striving to tell Indian stories naturally (dare we say natively?) in English and to harness the language to the project. The book stood on the shoulders of giants. In the early Seventies,Kamala Das had ventured beyond middle-class urban homes — the traditional safe haven of Indian literature in English — to write perfectly authentic stories set in rural Kerala. RK Narayan’s Malgudi was a world away from Mylapore and Egmore. And the greatest Indian English poetry of that decade,Arun Kolatkar’s linguistically daring Jejuri (1974),had started the process of tropicalising English that Midnight’s Children carried forward.

Rushdie’s readers have forgotten the influence of Kolatkar — who had worked in advertising like Rushdie — but he has not. At the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2007,he was looking out for a copy of Kolatkar’s last work published in his lifetime,Sarpa Satra (2004). Other obvious influences on Rushdie have also been forgotten. Technically,his work owed an enormous debt to magical realism. He is noted for using spices,pickles and food in general as bearers of meaning,even of political signals. But that innovation actually owes to Gunter Grass. The Flounder (1977) reads like a political recipe book and on a visit to Kolkata,Grass confirmed that he had invented the device.

Midnight’s Children brought together trends which had been visible for at least a decade and stirred them up like jhalmuri. It was quickly followed by Shame (1983),a technically perfect little story. The Satanic Verses came five years later and all hell broke loose. The book was banned in a dozen countries,starting with India,and Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed a fatwa against Rushdie in 1989. The fatwa remains in force forever since it can be withdrawn only by its originator,who is dead. Over the years,it has become more like a threatening posture than a real threat. And yet it still constrains Rushdie’s life — this year,politically motivated unrest prevented him from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival,even by video link.

Throughout his career,Rushdie has stayed with the project of chutnification. Here’s a defence of his most contentious work: “The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity,impurity,intermingling,the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings,cultures,ideas,politics,movies,songs… It is a love song to our mongrel selves.” (‘In Good Faith’,Newsweek,February 12,1990).

Rushdie continued to produce significant work like The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) in the decade he spent underground,despite the dehumanising pressures. “For many people,I’ve ceased to be a human being,” he wrote. “I’ve become an issue,a bother,an ‘affair’. Bullet-proof bubbles,like this one,are reality-proof too… In this phantom space a man may become the bubble that encases him,and then one day — pop! — he’s gone forever.” (‘One Thousand Days in a Balloon’,in Imaginary Homelands,1991).

But something infinitely more tragic had happened. In confinement,Rushdie’s art became erratic. Fury (2001) was unreadable. The Enchantress of Florence (2008) does not compare well with Umberto Eco’s Baudolino (2000),another text with a similar tone set in medieval Italy. Shalimar the Clown (2005),in which Rushdie revisited Kashmir for the first time after Midnight’s Children,peoples the Valley with a cast of unreal,barely human stick figures living in a doom-laden rural idyll. What a contrast with the primordial magic of the opening scene in Midnight’s Children,where Aadam Aziz knelt to pray and the Valley rose up to punch him in the nose,producing a case of congenital sinusitis that would confer upon Saleem Sinai the power of telepathy.

This was also the period when Rushdie’s personal life went out of control. His second wife,the writer Marianne Wiggins,who went underground with him,surfaced and left. His third wife,Elizabeth West,lasted from 1997 to 2004,when he moved on to TV host Padma Lakshmi who,in a happy reversal,dumped him. Before he married her,Rushdie had been treated to a weird all-female stag party where invitees included TV presenter Mariella Frostrup,food celebrity Nigella Lawson,pop star Danii Minogue and cabaret diva Ursula Martinez,the “feminist stripper”. Frostrup sued later when Rushdie claimed in an interview that he had “snogged” her,and everyone else too.

After Lakshmi sent him packing,Rushdie presented the painful spectacle of a sexagenarian having a midlife crisis. The media reported that he was pursuing a string of much younger women,including the writer Sophie Dahl and the actresses Scarlett Johansson,Olivia Wilde and Riya Sen. Dahl officially denied any romantic interest but the others just shrugged,fuelling the image of Salman Rushdie as an alpha bull on a mad career. Some parts of Joseph Anton suggest that Rushdie has not put his erratic behaviour behind him. He has disparaged some women in his life in a wholly gratuitous manner. He is primarily a novelist. He could have attacked them in his fiction instead of launching a public,full-on assault in a memoir,which is a literal document of record.

But actually,it doesn’t matter. Rushdie’s life and loves will be forgotten one day. What he will represent to posterity is the uneasy standoff between the right to free speech and the right not to feel assaulted,which will be renegotiated till the end of time. And he will be a constant reminder of humanity’s murderous eagerness to read into texts meanings which don’t exist,meanings which only reaffirm the reader’s anxieties and prejudices.

Rushdie wrote of the text which would take over his life: “At the centre of the storm stands a novel,a work of fiction,one that aspires to the condition of literature… People on all sides of the argument have lost sight of this simple fact. The Satanic Verses has been described,and treated,as a work of bad history,as an anti-religious pamphlet,as the product of an international capitalist-Jewish conspiracy,as an act of murder (‘he has murdered our hearts’),as the product of a person comparable to Hitler and Attila the Hun. It felt impossible,amid such a hubbub,to insist on the fictionality of fiction.” (‘In Good Faith’).

Later in the article,he wrote: “Even if I were to concede (and I do not concede it) that what I did in The Satanic Verses was the literary equivalent of flaunting oneself shamelessly before the eyes of aroused men,is that really a justification for being,so to speak,gang-banged?”

There lies the problem that Rushdie will always epitomise. If someone has stepped over the line,who put the line there and with what authority? Who can legitimately contain or chastise the transgressor? And is the line static or negotiable? These questions are raised by every attack on religion,by every counterattack on free speech. The cartoon crises which are running riot from Kolkata to Amsterdam reprise the “Rushdie affair” over and over again. Every time,the fundamentalisms of faith and the fundamentalisms of free speech compete loudly but inconclusively,and fail to even draw the line between the sacred and the profane,the very issue that The Satanic Verses examines.

To his credit,Rushdie — unlike certain cartoonists — has never sought absolute protection for the arts. “Literature is an interim report from the consciousness of the artist,and so it can never be ‘finished’ or ‘perfect’… Nothing so inexact,so frequently and easily misconceived,deserves the protection of being declared sacrosanct. We shall have to get along without the shield of sacralization,and a good thing,too. We must not become what we oppose.” (‘Is Nothing Sacred’,Granta 31,1990.)

The human race consists of two groups of people. One reveres reason and the intellect. Another worships older gods. The former will always appreciate Rushdie and support his position. The latter will always denounce him as the most dangerous species of terrorist — an intellectual terrorist fit for stoning to death. And Rushdie will always have to shield himself from their gambits.

This endless endgame recalls a striking passage from Mikhail Bulgakov’s “sunset novel”,one of the greatest works of the 20th century,though the author burned the first draft. The Master and Margarita (1967),in which the Devil descends on atheistic Moscow accompanied by a demonic retinue including a gunslinging cat to debate the existence of Satan and Jesus Christ,has exerted a powerful influence on Rushdie’s work,especially The Satanic Verses. Rushdie could easily stand in for the cat:

‘“I shall sit down,” replied the cat,sitting down,“but I shall enter an objection with regard to your last. My speeches in no way resemble verbal muck,as you have been pleased to put it … but rather a sequence of tightly packed syllogisms,the merit of which would be appreciated by such connoisseurs as Sextus Empiricus,Martianus Capella,and,for all I know,Aristotle himself.”

“Your king is in check,” said Woland [the Devil himself.

“Very well,very well,” responded the cat,and he began studying the chessboard through his opera glasses.’


Like the long-departed Ayatollah’s fatwa,the curse on midnight’s children cannot be rescinded. Forever,Rushdie will remain master and victim of his times,unable to live or die in peace. Joseph Anton is his attempt to define himself,but he will be defined for posterity by The Satanic Verses. And he must keep his eye on that universal chessboard where the sacred and the profane,dogma and free speech,strive eternally and fruitlessly for checkmate.